The National Broadband Plan released by the Federal Communications Commission today outlines a number of recommendations that could directly affect K-12 schools: revamping the federal E-rate program to offer more flexible use of the aid and streamline the application process; removing technological and policy barriers to online coursetaking; and improving the collection and transparency of educational data.
Ed-tech advocates welcomed those and other recommendations, but many are skeptical that the plan will be implemented anytime soon. The plan itself is a recommendation, not a mandate, and while some of the suggestions fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC, many require approval and cooperation from Congress, the executive branch, state and local governments, and the private for-profit and nonprofit sectors.
The plan would affect many aspects of the American economy and society, from education, health care, and the environment, to civic engagement and government performance, to homeland security and public safety.
“I think the plan is headed in the right direction, and am pleased to see that it is a priority of the [Obama] administration,” said Tammy Stephens, a member of the Broadband Knowledge Center of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, and the chief executive officer of the Stephens Group, a private consulting firm based in Long Beach, Calif. “However, I am skeptical that there will be enough sustained funding over time to reach their goals.”
One of the biggest components of the National Broadband Plan for educators is a proposed overhaul of the federal education-rate program, known as the E-rate, which was established in 1996 to help expand Internet and telecommunications connectivity for schools and libraries. Since that time, funding for the program has remained capped at $2.25 billion a year, a level that ed-tech experts contend is inadequate.
The broadband plan proposes indexing the cap for inflation, although that change would not be retroactive.
Another limitation of the existing E-rate program, experts in the field say, is that its often-confusing rules and procedures complicate schools’ innovative technological efforts.
For example, under the current program, schools can use E-rate funds to provide Internet connections only to their campuses. That restriction rules out support for the kinds of anytime, anywhere learning that mobile devices such as laptop computers and cellphones can provide, and it raises questions about online courses students work on at home.
But that may change if the recommendations in the National Broadband Plan are adopted. The document suggests exploring pilot programs that support wireless connectivity to devices both on and off school campuses for teachers and students.
Access to broadband, or high-speed Internet service, would provide schools the bandwidth they need to use multimedia applications such as video and audio, blogs, wikis, Web 2.0 tools, and other online technologies.
The plan would also allow off-hours use of school networks for community use.
However, some educators question an expansion of the program to include other uses.
“How are you going to broaden the eligible-services list when the program now is barely covering the [current eligible services]?” said Tom Rolfes, the education information-technology manager for the Nebraska Office of the Chief Information Officer and Nebraska Information Technology Commission.
“I would urge caution in broadening the eligible-services list until all [current] funding obligations are satisfied, which currently is not the case under the $2.25 billion ... funding cap,” he said.
‘Strong Educational Recommendations’
The document calls for improving efficiency in obtaining E-rate aid by simplifying applications for small projects and multiyear renewals instead of holding them to the same process as large, complex projects.
In addition to changes to the E-rate program, the broadband plan aims to decrease the barriers to online learning by re-evaluating teacher and course certifications across state lines and measuring completion of online courses through student achievement, as opposed to so-called seat time.
“The plan makes strong educational recommendations with a focus on online learning for expanding access to high-quality courses and programs,” said Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
The document also proposes rethinking copyright restrictions to facilitate the sharing of digital content, and proposes establishing a new license, separate from copyright or “creative commons,” that will allow materials to be published with all the restrictions of copyright except when the resource is being used for education.
Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md., believes the conversation that specific proposal will generate about copyright will be helpful for educators.
“Teachers and students both can be frustrated by access to content,” he said. “They’re not interested in breaking the law, but they also need access to educational resources to help them in their education.”
In addition, the plan encourages schools to explore open-source resources, which are free to use and share.
“A lot of states don’t ask the question, ‘Why don’t we buy open-source?’ ” said Steve Midgley, the director of education for the National Broadband Plan. “Open-source licensing is a valid and interesting alternative [to copyright].”
Addressing Digital Literacy
Teaching digital literacy is another component of the plan. Those skills should be embedded in all curricula instead of being taught as a separate subject, the document says.
“It is significant that the federal government is looking forward and reflecting back what the field has told them,” said Mr. Levin. “These new tools do offer tremendous opportunities, but just because kids know how to press the buttons doesn’t mean they are safe and smart and ethical in their use [of technology]. That’s something that requires some adult guidance and wisdom.”
The plan also touches on ways to improve data transparency to make education more efficient, by sharing data on how E-rate funds are used, the current state of broadband in schools across the nation, and district- and state-level financial information.
“The FCC’s attention on this is very helpful,” Mr. Levin said. “These are not issues that are widely understood.”
And yet, although many agree that the plan is fairly comprehensive, not all education broadband experts felt all issues were adequately addressed.
“How are they really going to address the [gap] in rural broadband coverage?” said Jeanne Hayes, the president of the Littleton, Colo.-based Hayes Connection, which conducts research on technology in schools, and a member of CoSN’s Broadband Knowledge Center. “What’s the scalability in terms of price points?”
Without addressing the regional challenges that some schools face in the availability of broadband providers, the cost of high-speed Internet connectivity may remain out of reach for many schools, she said.
Gary Rawson, the E-Rate coordinator for Mississippi and the chairman of the State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance, is concerned about how the broadband effort will be organized. “Just as there is no coordination effort at the federal level, there is a matching lack of coordination effort at the state level,” he said. “The obvious consequence of this non-coordination is duplication of effort; wasteful spending; networks that lack interoperability, standards, security; and networks that simply fail to serve the public.”
Still, many education experts agree that the plan is a move in the right direction, and they hope to see the funding needed to back it up.
“What we’re talking about here is really upgrading and updating the technological infrastructure that is powering the entire K-12 education system,” Mr. Levin of the state ed-tech directors’ group said. “These are challenging times, but this is one of those areas where the investment really is smart and will pay off in the long term.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week